Saturday, January 21, 2012

Taking Over the Internet, Pt. 2: Megaupload, SOPA, and copyright

So much for the best laid plans of mice and men: Two days after telling the Wall Street Journal that he didn't plan on backing down on SOPA, Lamar Smith (chief sponsor of SOPA) said he was pulling the bill for the time being.

Yesterday I wrote a few words about this bill and some of the related news. Today I'm expanding on that a bit, particularly on the parts about Megaupload, using the following Associated Press article from Time as a frame for my thoughts. (The quoted paragraphs will be in italics.)

The legal issue: "An indictment accuses Megaupload.com of costing copyright holders more than $500 million in lost revenue from pirated films and other content."
- You can read the indictment online. Whether the lost revenue numbers are accurate or not remain to be seen.

"The indictment was unsealed one day after websites including Wikipedia and Craigslist shut down in protest of two congressional proposals intended to thwart online piracy."
- Suspicious timing? No. If anything, we could argue that the timing is inconvenient for the US government, what with the backlash from Anonymous hacktivists (more on that later). Accounting for bureaucratic measures alone means that the Megaupload case was rolling before the protests. Furthermore, the Megaupload indictment was stamped two weeks ago, and the US Government's investigation began in January 2011. According to the indictment, other material found uploaded included child pornography and terrorism propaganda videos. So this was not in retaliation against Wikipedia, Rediit, and other sites protesting SOPA/PIPA (as I've seen some people suggest).

"The Justice Department said in a statement said that Kim Dotcom, formerly known as Kim Schmitz, and three others were arrested Thursday in New Zealand at the request of U.S. officials. Two other defendants are at large."
- I've seen outrage at the notion that a German citizen could be arrested in New Zealand on a US charge, but why? Those arrests happen when countries have existing extradition treaties. If a person commits a crime in a foreign land and leaves the country, the native government can still prosecute the perpetrator as long as there are diplomatic relations with the country the suspect fled to. New Zealand has an existing treaty with the USA, making this arrest possible. Considering Dotcom is a resident of Hong Kong, he might have been better off staying there, since the People's Republic of China does not have an extradition treaty with the USA.

Megaupload's take: "Before the site was taken down, it posted a statement saying allegations that it facilitated massive breaches of copyright laws were 'grotesquely overblown.'
- There are three words I would like to examine in that sentence.
- "Facilitated." The wording implies that Megaupload only helped or eased the process of piracy, without necessarily committing copyright infringement. The indictment includes conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit racketeering. So, facilitating seems like a light and imprecise word.
- "Massive." First of all, define massive. If there is a clause somewhere that makes a clear distinction between regular and massive breaches of copyright law, then I would like to see it.
- "Grotesquely." Does this mean that copyright law was indeed broken, but not on the massive scale that was alleged? What's a reasonable estimate of damages, if we are to believe Megaupload's claims? $500 million was the number used before, but if that number is grotesquely overblown, let's cut it down by a fifth, leaving us with $100 million. Is that a lot of money? These days, it's about the yearly payroll for a mid-to-large market pro baseball team, or almost $100 million more than I earn. So it's all relative. Who would this hypothetically lost money have gone to? Ordinary workers? Executives with fat year-end bonuses? Lobbyists against movie piracy?

"“The fact is that the vast majority of Mega’s Internet traffic is legitimate, and we are here to stay. If the content industry would like to take advantage of our popularity, we are happy to enter into a dialogue. We have some good ideas. Please get in touch,” the statement said."
- If the rest of the content industry is anything like the book publishing industry, then there are undoubtedly many people who would like to take advantage of the popularity of a site like Megaupload by legal means. There are people working within the industry to educate the resistant parties and bring about change. However, copyright laws have been around for hundreds of years, and the international treaties that tie them together have been around for almost as long. The internet is a relative baby by comparison, yet it has grown at such a rate that it has exposed the political systems that create or modify laws as slow at best, and ignorant or disinterested in progress at worst. Furthermore, online movie and music sharing is little over a decade old. That is not a long time when you consider how many elected representatives and corporate executives need to change their minds and (more importantly) work together to hammer out a new accord.
- This is a two-way street. If certain users want effective change immediately, and are angry that officials or "gatekeepers" don't seem to budge just because there are many people who say they should, then it stands to reason that the opposite is also true. The difference is that gatekeepers currently have the law on their side.
- People who scoff (and I've heard them scoff) at the notion of content holders restricting access to their work on account of their royalties use the word royalties like it's a dirty word. Like it's greedy, grubby, and standing in the way of the greater good. The truth is that on average most royalties are pittances. Some are adequate or significant, and a handful are enormous. Are any of these copyright holders greedy? Who is qualified to make that judgement? In some cases the copyright holders are large corporations (think of the big music companies and movie studios) that rake in millions if not billions every year. At the moment that money is distributed among executives, stars, and everyday people working for salaries or wages. The distribution is uneven, but that should be a different issue--except that the people profiting most from the current system seem to be fighting the hardest to keep the status quo (or go back to a time without internet piracy), although they claim it's in the best interests for their entire industry, which includes the low-paid workers. I think that the current economic model cannot continue for long, and efforts to back Acts like SOPA make the companies look unsympathetic to people who they should want as customers.

"Megaupload is considered a “cyberlocker,” in which users can upload and transfer files that are too large to send by email. Such sites can have perfectly legitimate uses. But the Motion Picture Association of America, which has campaigned for a crackdown on piracy, estimated that the vast majority of content being shared on Megaupload was in violation of copyright laws."
- More vague words. The MPAA estimated. A vast majority of content. Well, they'll need to prove that in court, or they'll need to prove whatever the specific accusation is.
- What about the content that wasn't in violation? What about the innocents? Some of the uproar I've seen comes from former Megaupload users who've seen all their content suddenly vanish. Some wonder what gives anyone the right to confiscate what's theirs. (There's irony in there, somewhere.) The unpleasant truth is that the law gives this right. It's the same as when police subpoena property and files belonging to others that may have relation to, or contain evidence for a particular case--even though the owners of the properties are innocent and the confiscated items are clean. It is inconvenient. It can feel violating. But it is sometimes necessary (you'll have to take the official word on that), and usually legal (check with a lawyer to see if there is a loophole).

In closing: "Dotcom, a resident of both Hong Kong and New Zealand, and a dual citizen of Finland and Germany, made more than $42 million from the conspiracy in 2010 alone, according to the indictment."
- It would seem that copyright infringement is a high stakes game.

The immediate fallout: Hacktivists from Anonymous reacted by disrupting service to several large websites, including those of the Justice Department and Universal Music Group. To clarify, these were DDoS attacks. To clarify further, please take five seconds to read this comic.

People get furious (and rightly so, in my opinion) over the idea of a censored internet, but such a thing already exists in some countries. Could it happen in the US? I don't think so. Earlier in the week, the White House blog implied that the Obama administration would not let such restriction of the internet happen. They could have vetoed SOPA and PIPA. Even if they hadn't, I don't think the entire population would have stood for it.

SOPA and PIPA have been shelved for now. Let's see if we can use this moment of awareness to make some progress on the key issues.

Thank you for reading.

1 comment:

Home Mortgage | Mortgage News | Easy Mortgage | Mortgage | Loans With Righthub said...

I just tried these cookies and they sure don’t look like the picture. Much flatter and the marshmallows melt and become crispy around the edges.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...